Over the past several years, New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) has been praised by fans and critics alike for the incredible quality of its wrestling matches. Dave Meltzer, pro-wrestling’s most well-known critic (for better or worse) has been one of their biggest champions.
As I write this in October 2021, he has rated 72 matches 5-stars or higher since 1982, 61 of which have taken place since 2012. Of those 61 matches, sixteen took place in 2018 alone. And today we look at another one of those big matches from 2018 to see if it really was that spectacular or if it was another example of momentary hype.
Today we revisit the 2018 tag team match between The Golden Lovers (Kenny Omega and Kota Ibush) and Kazuchika Okada & Tomohiro Ishii from NJPW’s Fighting Spirit Unleashed event.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
There were three story threads that converged going into this match. First, Omega had reunited with his longtime friend Ibushi and had begun wrestling as a team. As a unit, they were determined to show everyone what they could do together and that they could become the best tag team in the world. Second, Ishii had pinned Omega in the G1 Climax a month earlier, which set up a title match against Omega at NJPW’s Destruction in Hiroshima event, which Ishii lost. Third, Okada had begun a downward spiral following his world title loss to Omega at Dominion four months earlier. He began dressing strangely, started bringing party balloons down to ring, and began acting weirdly in general. He still wrestled more or less the same as before, but the seriousness and focus that defined the Rainmaker before was nowhere to be found.
Thus, all four men looked to accomplish something in this match. Omega and Ibushi wanted to continue showing the world how good they were as a unit, Ishii wanted to avenge his loss from a few weeks earlier, and Okada wanted to get his hands on Omega for the first time since Dominion. Needless to say, this was going to be an explosive match once the bell rang.
This match originally took place on September 30th, 2018 at Fighting Spirit Unleashed, one of the few NJPW shows to take place in the United States.
Okada and Ibushi start things off with a chain grappling sequence that ends with Ibushi dodging a rainmaker lariat. Ishii demands to enter the match and asks for Omega when he tags in. they lock up and Ishii stands firm off a shoulder tackle. We get a running strike exchange until Ishii knocks Omega down and then attacks Ibushi on the apron. Omega tries to take advantage with forearms and elbows but Ishii absorbs them like they’re nothing. They go back-and-forth some more until Ishii applies a front chancery that gets broken up by an Ibushi roundhouse kick. Ishii stiffs Ibushi’s face but Ibushi pulls and Ishii and no-sells. Shenanigans ensue with the Golden Lovers landing some tandem offense, despite Ibushi not being the legal man. Gotta get your s**t in, I guess. That sequence ends with a Kotaro Crusher from Omega as Ishii kicks out.
Ibushi tags in and kicks away at Ishii but Ishii tanks them like a boss. They go back-and-forth with brutal strikes until Ibushi gets the upper hand (leg?). Ishii fires back with a shoulder tackle and in tags Okada. He lands a slam/senton combo and then gets in Omega’s face. Okada follows with a neckbreaker on Ibushi for two and then tags Ishii. The CHAOS duo double tackle Ibushi and Ishii attacks Omega on the apron. Omega rushes into the ring and goes at it with Ishii. Bad idea. All of Omega’s fire won’t help him when the Stone Pitbull is angry. Ishii floors Omega and throws him into one hard object after another as Okada beats Ibushi up in the ring. Ibushi crawls to his corner, only to find it empty, and then gets sent into his enemies’ corner.
Okada tags in but Ibushi tries to fight his opponents off two-on-one. That fails and Okada lands a basement dropkick. Ishii tags in again and starts throwing hands with Ibushi. But again, Ishii out-strikes his opponent and charges, only to run into a sudden standing dropkick. Hot tag to Omega. He lands a crossbody on Ishii and Okada escapes his fury. Ishii tries to maintain control with elbows. Omega answers with a sickening chop and goes for his You Can’t Escape combo. But Ishii does escape and chops Omega’s throat. He sends Omega into the ropes but Omega answers with an awkward running DDT. He goes for a V-Trigger but Ishii dodges. Ishii charges but Omega answers with a boot. Then he charges but Ishii lands a big powerslam. In comes Okada. He rushes Omega but Omega ducks, allowing Ibushi to land a missile dropkick. Omega with a snap hurricanrana on Ishii. Both CHAOS guys escape to ringside. Omega and Ibushi follow with their ‘Cross-Slash’ stereo moonsaults. The crowd goes nuts.
Back in the ring, the Golden Lovers connect with an extended slam/diving splash combo. Both guys pin Okada but he kicks out all the same. they go for a double-team powerbomb but Ishii makes the save. He lands a Backdrop on Omega and goes for a Brainbuster on Ibushi but Ibushi counters into a suplex of his own. But Ibushi turns around and eats a massive shotgun dropkick from Okada. now it’s Okada and Omega and the crowd gives them a standing ovation as they get in each other’s faces. Then the brawl begins. Okada wins the first exchange with a big uppercut. Omega answers with a knife-edged chop. Omega avoids a dropkick. Okada dodges a V-Trigger. A rainmaker gets blocked. As does a One-Winged Angel. Okada tries the lariat again. Omega dodges and lands a snap dragon suplex. Omega charges for a V-Trigger. Ishii comes in with a lariat. Omega blocks the first one, ducks a second, and connects with a Death Valley Driver. He goes back to Okada but walks into a huge dropkick. Okada attempts the Rainmaker again. Ibushi stops it by grabbing Okada’s arm. Then Okada gets downed by a martial arts rush/V-Trigger/German suplex combination. Omega and Ibushi are on fire here.
Ibushi lands a plancha onto Ishii on the floor as Omega lands a V-Trigger knee on Okada. he goes for OWA again. Okada counters with a Tombstone. No, Omega counters into his own Tombstone and tries for a Meltzer Driver with Ibushi. But Ishii stops Ibushi from springboarding. That gives Okada enough time to counter and drop Omega with a Tombstone of his own. Ishii follows with a sliding lariat. Okada pins but Ibushi makes the save. Okada signals the end. Rainmaker is blocked. Omega lands a big uranage and both men go down.
Both Ibushi and Ishii tag in and the stiff strike exchange resumes. Ibushi gets the upper hand and downs Ishii with a roundhouse kick and follows with a moonsault knee splash. He pins but Ishii survives. Omega comes in and he and Ibushi land a powerbomb into a German suplex for another two-count as Okada saves Ishii. Omega tosses Okada out of the ring and the Golden Lovers tease their Golden Trigger double-team knee strike finisher. But once again Okada saves Ishii. He lands a DDT on Ibushi and goes for a standing dropkick on Omega, only for Omega to counter with a powerbomb. Sick counter by Omega. Ishii gets up and charges. He blocks a v-Trigger. Omega blocks a lariat. Ishii drops him with a head-butt and then targets Ibushi. Ibushi avoids him and lands a backflip kick. All four men go down.
Ibushi and Ishii get up first and start slapping each other. Incredibly hard. For a long time. They hit way too many slaps to count and neither man falters. Ishii tries to push forward. Ibushi counters with a sick lariat for two. Ibushi teases his Kamigoye knee strike. Ishii blocks and goes for a German. Ibushi lands on his feet and lands a kick. Then he charges, but walks into an even bigger lariat from Ishii. One, two, Ibushi kicks out.
Ishii goes for a Brainbuster but Ibushi escapes. He goes for a German but Ishii head-butts out and sidesteps a charging Omega. Ishii tosses Omega into Ibushi and then Germans Omega. Meanwhile, Okada charges Ibushi into a corner and lands a combination of tandem moves on him with Ishii. Okada dropkicks Ibushi in the back of his head. Ishii follows with a sick Last Ride-style powerbomb. One, two, no, Ibushi survives somehow. Ishii charges for a lariat. Ibushi strikes his arm to stop it and then lands a sick kick to Ishii’s neck. He follows with a Tanahashi-style armtrap German suplex but Ishii kicks out again. Ishii escapes a Kamigoye but can’t escape a kick from Omega. Ishii tries to knock both opponents down but eats a roundhouse/V-Trigger combo instead. Omega boots Okada off the apron. Both Omega and Ibushi remove their knee pads. Golden Trigger knee strikes connect with Ishii’s head. One, two, three! There’s the match!
Winners after 23:06: The Golden Lovers (Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushi)
This match was nowhere near the 5-star level. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, but by no means was it perfect or anything truly exceptional. It had its exciting moments and featured some great tag team wrestling, but that’s all. It came across less as an important match with a story behind it and more as an exhibition or a teaser for what New Japan has to offer.
The main story here was that the Golden Lovers were a much stronger unit than the CHAOS stablemates Okada and Ishii. Those two wrestled like two individuals teaming together whereas Omega and Ibushi fought as one. That slight difference in philosophy is what enabled Omega and Ibushi to win in the end. They were more cohesive together, they complemented each other better, they had more tandem offense, and they knew each other well enough to know when interfering was warranted. And for those that really like tag team wrestling, there was plenty to enjoy here. Omega and Ibushi put on some tremendous combination moves and had excellent timing, which made the match more exciting. If you like fast-paced action, this match had this and then some.
And as always, these NJPW main-eventers showed tremendous skill at creating tension and exciting sequences. I always enjoy when wrestlers counter each other so extensively because it shows they know and have prepared for each other’s most dangerous moves. From the opening sequence between Okada and Ibushi to the many finisher interruptions and saves, all four wrestlers did a great job in trying to make this match as exciting as possible. That was reflected in the fans reacting to most of the near-falls, chanting ‘New Japan’ in appreciation for all four wrestlers, and the standing ovation they gave in the middle of the match.
But as great as Okada, Omega and Ibushi were, the star of this match was definitely Ishii. Whereas those three acted as wrestling performers for the most part, Ishii came across as a fighter. His selling was far more realistic, he absorbed hits like a boss, and he managed to be both an underdog and a monster for his opponents to overcome. He wrestled a lot like one of my favorite wrestlers of all time, Toshiaki Kawada. He was by far the most legit threat in this match and did a lot to give this match an air of realism and aura of combat sports legitimacy. Without that, it would’ve veered into the realm of overkill and spot-fest exaggeration.
At the same time, this match’s greatest strength was also its greatest weakness. Omega and Ibushi ignored tag team rules completely on several occasions. One minute the Golden Lovers were in the ring together for an extended sequence and the ref ignored this, and minutes later that same ref prevented Omega from entering the ring following an Okada taunt. That sort of logic-defying inconsistency for the sake of pure spectacle made this match seem less real and a bit too much like blatant exhibition, which does have its place but not in a match such as this.
Furthermore, Okada was largely a non-issue here. He barely contributed to the match beyond a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exchange with Omega that had been done before several times. They tried to build it up with a long staredown, but the payoff was weak. All he did here was land a few of his signature moves and broke up a few pins. Beyond that, he was largely relegated to fourth man status and was dealt with a bit too easily for my liking. This was a man that had broken almost every single record in New Japan. Yet Omega and Ibushi spent more time and effort trying to keep Ishii down. And while that did wonders to elevate Ishii further as a threat, the fact that significantly less had been devoted to keep Okada out of the picture diminished Okada’s importance to the match and his status as a legit threat in general.
They also had a chance to make this match into something different but ignored it completely. Omega looked like he hurt his knee executing a DDT and sold it like he was in genuine pain. It would’ve been great for that to become a part of the match because it would’ve taken Omega out of his comfort zone and forced him to overcome an unexpected problem of his own creation. Putting him in that sort of underdog position would’ve been refreshing instead of seeing him perform the same old ‘spot-fest’ match that he has become (in)famous for.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This was a generic exhibition match, pure and simple. There wasn’t anything truly unique or special about it that made it stand out from the plethora of other NJPW big match main-events. And while the match did feature some interesting and exciting tag team offense from both teams, the overall flow of the match didn’t translate into something truly exceptional.
If you like exciting and explosive tag team wrestling, you’ll like this match. And yet, through its own inherent faults and its lack of realism or uniqueness (beyond Ishii’s involvement) I doubt you’ll love this match. It’s great, but nothing truly out of this world.